Here are two somewhat contradictory things I can tell you about The Duke of Burgundy, which takes its name from a species of butterfly. It is, I’m fairly certain, quite unlike any other Sapphic S-and-M lepidoptery-themed psychological romance you have ever seen. At the same time, though, its uniqueness rests on a passionate, you might say slavish, devotion to a particular cinematic style of the past.
Peter Strickland, who seeded and tended this exquisite hothouse flower of high-toned eroticism, is unabashedly fetishistic in his love of old exploitation movies. His previous feature, Berberian Sound Studio, was at once a love letter to the Italian horror films of the 1970s and a record of its main character’s encounter with the world that spawned them. The characters in The Duke of Burgundy inhabit a carefully imagined alternate reality where film seems not to exist. Bicycles, manual typewriters and slide projectors are the only machines anyone needs. Still, the grainy voluptuousness of the images and the sighing languor and exquisite décor in which these characters dwell conjure an atmosphere of pseudo-aristocratic post-’60s grind-house Euro-sex.
That is not a precisely technical term. And while it’s true that The Duke of Burgundy is designed to appeal to (the following words should be said in a leering, silky, vaguely accented whisper) only the most sophisticated tastes, its pleasures require no special film knowledge. All that is required is a liberated imagination, a sympathetic heart, an eye for luxury and an appreciation for the morphology of winged insects.
Filming in Hungary, amid crumbling mansions and overgrown forests — and including credits for “dresses and lingerie” and “perfume” (perfume!) — Mr. Strickland conjures a lush utopia populated entirely by women. The typical household consists of a pair of lovers who are also (or who at least assume the roles of) a gentlewoman scientist and her dutiful, sometimes purposely incompetent maid. The principal profession is entomology, though one woman seems to make a nice living designing and manufacturing bondage beds and “human toilets.”
Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) belong to such a ménage, and Mr. Strickland is principally concerned with the exploration of their sexual practices and domestic routines, which amount more or less to the same thing. There is the hint of a plot — involving the waning and waxing of affections and the threats posed to bliss by jealousy and boredom — but the film is less a story than a succession of subtly differentiated moods. What gives it momentum is the audience’s gradual discovery of the dynamic between the two women, a daily cycle of ritual and release.
The rules seem clear enough at first. Evelyn, dark-haired and nervous, with trusting eyes and a tremor in her voice, is the servant whose eagerness to please is met with coldness, and whose slightest lapses are severely punished. Cynthia, when her research is interrupted, responds with haughty weariness or outright cruelty to Evelyn’s timid attempts at kindness. She is the boss, and Evelyn is happy to be subjected to her whims and her discipline. Except that, as it turns out, Cynthia is herself acting out Evelyn’s instructions, which are neatly written on notecards or whispered like backstage prompts. Cynthia finds it increasingly lonely at the top, as her complete obedience to Evelyn’s demands leaves her weary and frustrated. Evelyn, meanwhile, wants more and more, pushing herself and her partner toward extremes of subjugation and rebelling when her yearnings are unsatisfied. She persuades Cynthia to tie her up and lock her in a chest overnight and then jolts her awake with a keening safe word. (The word is “pinastri,” by the way. Go ahead and Google; all the images are safe for work, though if you’re a moth you might feel a little uncomfortable.)
In the end, there is nothing especially campy about this movie, which neither mocks its heroines nor the breathless, naughty screen tradition to which they belong. It’s a love story, and also a perversely sincere (and sincerely perverse) labor of love.
Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Eugenia Caruso, Zita Kraszko.
Writer-director: Peter Strickland.
A Sundance Selects release. Running time: 106 minutes. Sexual situations, nudity, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.